On Wednesday, for the first time in more than a year, Jefferson County Public Schools students went to school in person. It was a historic day for the district, after a historic year of remote learning amid a deadly pandemic.
At Medora Elementary in the far southwest corner of Jefferson County, a kindergarten student tried with her teacher, Brandee Pezzullo, to sound out the letters for the word to describe how she felt coming to school today: “happy.”
Down the hall, first grade teacher Lindsay Marsee had her students writing sentences with the prompt, “Things I can do.” On the count of three, everyone shouted out something “really cool.”
“I can do a backflip!” one first grader said.
“I can move my arms like this!” another girl said, throwing her arms up and wiggling in her seat.
These students were in the first group of children to be welcomed back to JCPS for its phased-in return. The district brought back students in kindergarten through second grade Wednesday. On Thursday and Friday, grades three through five will return.
But classrooms don’t look like they did before the pandemic. All students and staff wore face masks. Teachers paused during lessons with reminders to students to keep them over their noses.
“Mask check!” Marsee said when she noticed one student’s mask had slipped down while he was talking. He quickly pulled it back up.
There were also far fewer students in the classroom. Each student sat alone at a table that would normally seat three.
About 60% of JCPS students chose the in-person option, while the other 40% remain fully remote. The in-person students are split into a hybrid schedule, with half the students in school at a time, while the other half are remote.
Kindergarten classrooms looked especially unusual. No more gathering on the big rug for storytime, or sitting together at big tables. Instead kindergartners sit at their own desks, spaced several feet apart.
In the cafeteria, students ate their pizza lunches, each child alone at a table that would normally seat six.
As they exited to return to class, Medora principal Beth Palmer and a few other adults helped students use markings on the floor to stay six feet apart in line.
“Stay on the ‘X,’” Palmer said.
Palmer said preparing for this day has been the most challenging period of her career, but it paid off. The day was going smoothly, she said. They hadn’t had any students presenting signs of COVID-19.
“Today is all about building relationships and ensuring that they [students] know the procedures,” she said.
Teachers drove home techniques for handwashing, social distancing and mask wearing. They taught students the importance of using their assigned seat so that contact tracing is possible.
Palmer said the only hiccup was a few students whose parents brought them to school on the wrong day. Students with last names that begin with letters A-K were supposed to be in person this Wednesday, with L-Z names in person Thursday and Friday.
Medora school counselor Misty Glass said students were excited to see their teachers and friends. But she could also tell they were dealing with some anxiety about returning. Some students didn’t want to get out of their parents’ cars during drop-off.
“We had to coax them out and encourage them out…And then you could tell by their faces as they’re walking into the school building that they’re nervous and they’re anxious,” she said.
That anxiety was apparent in a few students when it came to staying six feet apart in line. During transitions, students wavered, wide-eyed, in doorways as they tried to time their exits so they didn’t bunch up in the hallway.
But many appeared genuinely excited to be in the building again, with other kids. In some classrooms, students were bursting to talk to one another, and their teachers let them.
Glass said a lot of students have struggled with feelings of loneliness and isolation during remote learning, and she’s happy they’re back.
“For me, it’s just peace,” she said. “Being able to figure out how they’re doing — really. Just get eyes on them.”
JCPS schools will welcome back pre-K students on Monday. Middle and high schoolers will return on April 5, after spring break.